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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

V. Early English Comedy

§ 19. Jacob and Esau

The Historie of Jacob and Esau, licensed for printing in 1557, but extant only in an edition of 1568, may be grouped with the “prodigal son” plays, though it is a variant from the standard type. The Biblical story is handled in humanist fashion, and, with the addition of subsidiary characters, is skilfully worked up into a five act comedy of orthodox pattern. Esau is the central figure, and, in an early scene, two of Isaac’s neighbours, Hanan and Zethar, Scriptural by name but classical by origin, lament that the patriarch’s elder son “hath been naught ever since he was born,” and predict that he will “come to an ill end.” They contrast his “loose and lewd living” with the exemplary conduct of Jacob, who “keepeth here in the tents like a quiet man.” But Esau does not follow the ordinary evil courses of an Acolastus or a Misogonus. In his insatiable passion for hunting, he rises while yet it is dark, robbing his voluble servant Ragau of his sleep, and waking the tent-dwellers with the blowing of his horn. We are given a vivid picture of the eager follower of the chase talking to his favourite hounds by name, and ranging the forest from morn to night without thought of food. Thus, the way is cleverly prepared for the scene in which Esau, on his return from the hunt, is so faint with hunger that he is ready to eat a “cat” or “a shoulder of a dog,” and catches at Jacob’s offer of a mess of pottage even at the price of his birthright. And, when his hunger has been appeased, and his servant reproaches him with having bought the meal “so dere,” his speech of self-justification shows the dramatist’s insight into character and his analytical power.

  • If I die to morow, what good would it do me?
  • If he die to morrow, what benefite hath he?
  • And for a thing hanging on such casualtie:
  • Better a mease of pottage than nothing pardy.
  • Jacob and Esau do not afford much scope for the author’s inventive power, but Rebecca is drawn with considerable subtlety. She seeks, in an ingenious way, to justify her schemes on behalf of her younger son by proclaiming that she is an agent of the Divine Will, and also by pleading that she scarcely knows whether Esau is her son or not:
  • He goeth abroade so early before day light,
  • And returneth home again so late in the night,
  • And uneth I sette eye on hym in the whole weeke:
  • No sometime not in twaine, though I doe for hym seeke.
  • Well may Mido, Isaac’s “boy,” speak of her “quick answers” to his master. Mido, himself possessed of a ready tongue, is one of a group of servants whom the dramatist has introduced, and who are a very attractive feature of the play. He prides himself upon his strength, as Abra, the little handmaid of Rebecca, does upon her cleanliness and her culinary powers:
  • I trust to make such broth that, when all things are in,
  • God almighty selfe may wet his finger therein.
  • They are both eager partisans of Jacob, as is also Deborah, “the nurse of Isaacs tent,” while Esau’s only adherent is Ragau, whose fidelity differentiates him from the Vice, a type to which, otherwise, he is related. The prominence given to servants, the frequent introduction of songs and the general reconciliation (without Biblical warrant) at the close, are features which Jacob and Esau shares with Ralph Roister Doister. There can be little doubt that it was a school play, and that “the Poet,” who speaks an epilogue enforcing the protestant doctrine of “election,” was the headmaster who had written the work for performance by his pupils.